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Survivors can testify in Baltimore Archdiocese bankruptcy case, judge rules

Survivors can testify in Baltimore Archdiocese bankruptcy case, judge rules
BALTIMORE — Survivors of child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore will be able to testify about their torment during two hearings in April and May, a judge ruled Thursday.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Michelle M. Harner granted a request by the committee representing survivors in the bankruptcy case to allow victims to speak for two hours during “status conferences” on April 8 and May 20.

“The sole purpose of the Conferences is to increase engagement and understanding in this chapter 11 case; no statements of any party at the Conferences will be considered as evidence in any matter or proceeding in this case or as part of the official record in this case,” Harner’s order said.

Survivors who choose to speak in court will do so with Archbishop William Lori, leader of America’s oldest diocese, in attendance, according to court records. The church supported giving survivors the opportunity to testify.

Advocates for survivors celebrated the idea of victim testimony when attorneys for the committee requested as much in a filing last Friday, and again when informed of the judge’s decision.

“It’s wonderful, because a lot of the survivors want to tell their story,” said Teresa Lancaster, an Annapolis attorney who survived abuse in the Catholic Church as a child and advocates for other victims.

She said survivors used to have to go to the archdiocese to report abuse.

“They’d have to go to the archdiocese building and be on Lori’s turf,” Lancaster said. “This way, it’s a neutral territory, where we’re on an even field to talk and he gets to see it without being lofty, sitting above us.”

David Lorenz, director of the Maryland chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, compared chance to testify to the opportunity given to victims in criminal cases to tell the judge about how the crime impacted them.

“I want you to understand what the impact of this was on me. I’m not just some number,” said Lorenz, adding that it “helps give closure.”

In a phone interview, Lorenz also put the testimony and bankruptcy proceedings in perspective.

Neither being compensated or testifying about abuse “gives you back what you lost,” he said. “There isn’t a person up there who wouldn’t trade both of those things, the check and the chance to address Lori, for having their life back.”

In their filing last Friday, attorneys for the survivor’s committee portrayed the prospect of victims testifying as an opportunity to humanize the money-oriented proceedings of the bankruptcy.

“The Committee,” its attorneys wrote, “believes that accommodating the direct involvement of Survivor claimants in these proceedings will properly balance the case narrative and deepen the collective understanding of the histories and perspective of a critical constituency in the case. … providing Survivors with a meaningful voice in these proceedings will serve to build trust in the process and, ultimately, enhance prospects for a timely and fair global settlement that includes expanded protocols to support the protection of children within the Archdiocese going forward.”

The archdiocese declared bankruptcy Sept. 29, two days before Maryland’s landmark Child Victims Act took effect. That law eliminated a previous time limit for people who were sexually abused as children to sue the perpetrators and the institutions that enabled their torment. Anticipating a flood of lawsuits, the diocese made the strategic decision to file for bankruptcy to protect its assets and limit its liability.

Bankruptcy meant lawsuits against the church that would have been filed publicly in state court, and possibly ended up in front of a jury, would need to be submitted as claims in bankruptcy court, where they may or may not be public. After survivors file claims, they are vetted and sent to an expert to evaluate and assign a dollar amount based on the extent of the abuse described.

Survivors have until May 31 to file their “proof of claim” forms in bankruptcy court.


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